It’s just shy of two years since the Duncan Theatre in Lake Worth Beach went dark. The immensely popular annual Modern Dance Series hadn’t finished when the theater shut down because of COVID-19, but on Jan. 15, the doors were wide open to welcome its loyal audience back as it kick-started its 2022 season with Parsons Dance.
And what a kick it was to be back in the theater again. The chemistry was obvious but I’m not sure who was more excited to be there: the audience, so eager to watch, or the dancers, so eager to perform.
Parsons Dance has traveled the world entertaining audiences with its trademark high-energy and accessible dances since it was founded 35 years ago by choreographer David Parsons. On Jan. 15, Parsons, who has created over 75 works for his company, chose to present three brand-new works made during the COVID shutdown alongside three of his best known works made decades ago.
Speaking briefly before the show, Parsons talked about how he and his dancers, during these difficult last two years, moved their “bubble” from location to location in order to create these new works and continue their training.
The first dance presented, Past Tense (2021), worked well as an opener. Each of the eight company dancers were introduced, highlighted and then in numerous trios and duets were woven into intricate choreographic patterns which were filled with non-stop movement, boundless energy and masterful technique. Past Tense was just what I have come to expect from this company and set the tone for the evening.
After seeing the work, I took a look at the digital program that I had yet to open on my phone and was surprised to discover that Past Tense wasn’t made by Parsons but by a guest choreographer. I thought that the choreography had showed off the company so well that it was easy to assume that it had to be the artistic director that captured each company dancer with such sharp focus while highlighting their individual technical prowess and then was able to combine their collective talents to show how cohesive they were as a whole, as an ensemble. But the choreographer was Matthew Neenan, co- founder of BalletX and choreographer-in-residence at Pennsylvania Ballet.
In Past Tense, Neenan made an interesting choice to pair his breath-and-flow modern dance movement (which was filled with gestures and quirky athleticism) to the music of the Baroque Italian composer Pietro Locatelli. The neutral-colored costumes by Christine Darch were loose and flowing versions of corsets and undergarments from the 1700s and the colors in the lighting design from Christopher S. Chambers were reminiscent of the warm siennas and burnt umbers used in the paintings of that period. Towards the end of the work, the performers danced for a period in silence creating a change in the mood that lead to a letdown — a distinctly unmemorable ending.
However, the solo that followed, Balance of Power (2020) choreographed by Parsons, was riveting — an absolute showstopper. It was performed by the masterful dancer Zoey Anderson, whose synergy with the rhythmic driving force of the percussive score written and performed by award-winning drummer Giancarlo “GC” de Trizio was sensational.
Her incredible physical control was evident from the beginning when she appeared out of complete blackness in a sculpted headstand, which she held without so much as a quiver until she was framed in an intense overhead spotlight. Then, no sooner than she was upright, she balanced rising on demi-pointe on one foot for a very long time and then, without a hint of hesitation, she balanced even longer on the other foot, still on demi-pointe.
As the rhythms accelerated, it seemed as if Anderson became hyper-synchronized to the non-linear development of the score. The movements were isolated to body parts and uniquely quirky, which she articulated with phenomenal nuance making it look so easy, so doable yet at the same time, making it hard to believe what you actually saw had just happened. Clearly, Zoey Anderson is a thoroughbred of a dancer.
And then, less than a minute after her tour de force solo ended, Anderson reappeared in a different costume and nonchalantly slipped into The Road (2021), another high-energy ensemble work, this time choreographed by Parsons. Inspired by the soulful 1970s folk-rock songs of Yusuf Islam (then known as Cat Stevens), Parsons fashioned a work that seemed like a continuous forward journey — like the journey of life.
A sense of communal harmony and images of seeking and searching were introduced in the beginning as the dancers made an inward circle of clasped hands where some turned outward to see beyond before they separated to begin the journey. The dancers began entering from the back of the stage in silhouette in different groupings — always from the same side — crossing against the scrim before being drawn downstage to spill out onto the stage in different playful combinations that at times were quite gymnastic before exiting from the same side that they had entered.
The second half of the program was dedicated to audience favorites from 1982-1990. The light-hearted and cartoonish The Envelope had all eight company members dressed the same in black tunics and pants with black sphinx-like headdresses and wearing dark, round glasses. They comically scurried around in little formations, each one trying to rid themselves of a white envelope that had mysteriously appeared. Countless attempts to get rid of the omnipresent and perhaps ominous letter proved to be unsuccessful, but the charming antics were successful in keeping our attention focused on their endless maneuvers.
Sandwiched in the middle was Caught, the signature solo Parsons choreographed and for many years danced himself. This clever work is one of the dances that launched Parsons as a choreographer and secured his reputation in the dance world. The use of intense downward spotlights that turned on and off around the stage, as well as a section that pulsed strobe lights, gave dancer Henry Steele the illusion that he was caught in mid-air, moving through space without ever touching the ground. Steele, bare-chested in white loose pants, is a virtuosic dancer who gave us another astonishing solo tour de force performance.
Steele, like Anderson, also did a magical return to the stage (in a new costume) and, in no time at all, he was gleefully dancing his way through the lively last ensemble work, Parsons’ Nascimento. The audience swayed in their seats to the Brazilian rhythms of Milton Nascimento as they watched carefree couples meet, dance and exchange flirtatious looks. Bathed in vibrant colored lighting, the dancers, dressed in pastel-colored street clothes, skimmed and scattered across the stage with each grouping seemingly restructuring the order of Parsons’ signature movements for their own delight.
After watching how the dancers were able to capture the spirit of his music in dance, it is no wonder that Nascimento gave his commissioned score as a gift to Parsons Dance. He must have felt that it was he who had gotten the gift — to actually see his music embodied in movement on the stage.
The excellent dancers of Parsons Dance — Zoey Anderson, Deidre Rogan, Henry Steele, Damon Lemonte Garner, Croix Dienno, Rachel Harris, Megan Garcia and Jerimy Rivera — performed with their usual bravura, bringing the evening to a satisfying close.
There is much more dance to come this season. It is my hope that we will get out and go to the theaters. We must support the dance companies that have valiantly struggled to survive during this extreme time of hardship. We owe that to them. We need to show our appreciation for their dedication to the art form we love.
The Duncan Theatre’s Modern Dance Series continues with The Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble’s performances on Feb. 4 and 5, Pilobolus’ 50th Anniversary Celebration on March 4 and 5, and the Martha Graham Dance Company on March 25 and 26. Call (561) 868-3948 for tickets or go online to www.duncantheatre.org.